Written By: Lily Rothman, Liz Ronk
The islands of Polynesia have long been a source of inspiration to visitors. Perhaps most famous is painter Paul Gauguin, but literary icons like Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson also found something special in the islands’ unique environment and culture.
It was with that knowledge in mind that LIFE photographer Eliot Elisofon set out for Polynesia. Along with his wife, he traveled thousands of miles around the region, hoping to provide LIFE readers with a hint of what made the place such a rich wellspring of art. The result was a Jan. 24, 1955, photo essay titled, simply, Voyages to Paradise.
Elisofon’s work gives new meaning to the idea of “vacation reading,” with each photograph paired with a passage from a work of literature inspired by the islands.
In the dancers seen in the first slide below, for example, Elisofon saw as a picture of those whom Melville lauded in Typee, writing “not only do their feet dance, but their arms, hands, fingers, ay, their very eyes, seem to dance in their leads.” The ship seen in the fifth slide was described by Frederick O’Brien in Atolls of the Sun. And the aerial view of Bora Bora seen in slide three was just as James A. Michener had described it in Return to Paradise: “I saw it first from an airplane. On the horizon there was a speck that became a tall, blunt mountain with cliffs dropping sheer into the sea. About the base of the mountain, narrow fingers of land shot out, forming magnificent bays, while about the whole was thrown a coral ring of absolute perfection, dotted with small motus on which palms grew…”
Not every photograph Elisofon took made it into print, so we can’t say whether there are particular literary scenes with which he associated the outtakes. And yet we know for sure that these islands can inspire greatness. Perhaps the images in these unmatched photos will someday inspire works of art of their own.